Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Geoscience education for Aboriginal students at Curtin University of Technology, Perth

Krishna K. Sappal
School of Applied Geology
Curtin University
Australia's well being is largely dependent on exploration, mining and processing of minerals and energy resources. During the last twenty years state of the art technologies in geology, geochemistry and geophysics have revolutionised mineral exploration and development, and influenced the provision of geoscience education and training in Australian Universities. However, the participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island students in geoscience education is under represented. The first Aboriginal student to graduate in geology at Curtin is likely to be in 1995.

This paper is based on two premises, firstly, the need for geoscience education for Aboriginal students due to their close affinity to land over several thousand years and the impact of mineral resources on their future well being, and secondly the resources and modifications required to develop curricula to meet needs of the students who have been disadvantaged in the past years.

The Associate Diploma in Science and Technology was first introduced in 1994 by the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University of Technology. The diploma aims to emphasis both Aboriginal and Western scientific knowledge. My experience in the implementation of geoscience unit, namely Geological Systems 102 within the diploma course is discussed in the paper. The aim of the unit is to introduce students to earth processes and products and the resulting land forms due to external and internal earth processes. After completion of the Associate Diploma some of the students are expected to progress to a degree course in geoscience.


The School of Applied Geology, at Curtin University provided the teaching of two geology units, namely Geological Changes 111 and Geological Systems 102, for the first year of the Associate Diploma in Science and Technology introduced in 1994 by the Centre for Aboriginal Studies. The course is specifically designed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait students who may not have a background in science but have interest in science and technology. The diploma aims to emphasise both Aboriginal and Western scientific knowledge. The focus in the geology units of the course has been on field work, laboratory work and projects based on field work. After completion of the first year of the course the students take electives from the main course being offered at Curtin University in their second year. After satisfactory completion of the diploma the students can proceed into a science degree course at Curtin University, seek employment in mineral industry/science and technology or continue in the area of Aboriginal studies.

The applicants to the course must be at least 17 years of age on entering the course, and no previous knowledge in the area of science is required but the applicants must have sufficient literacy and numeracy skills. Mature age applicants are actively encouraged to apply. In the 1994 intake more than 50% of students were of mature age. The term geoscience in this paper refers to branches of geology, e.g. palaeontology, mineralogy, petrology, stratigraphy, geophysics, geochemistry etc. The glossary of geology (second edition, 1980) defines geoscience as a short form sometimes used in the plural, denoting collective disciplines of the geological sciences. The term as such, is synonymous with Geology; a synonym of earth science.

Mineral industry

The rich geological heritage of Australia has endowed it with mineral and energy resources of world class. At present Australia ranks among the top five mineral producers along with USA, Canada, South Africa and C.I.S. During 1993 export earnings from minerals and energy sector accounted for nearly 40% of Australian income. Western Australia's share of this export income was over $12 billion dollars. Western Australia is a major producer of gold, nickel, iron, aluminium, diamonds and mineral sands. The state at present is enjoying continued expansion of its mineral industry. In spite of benefits derived from mining by the Australian community, and the availability of state of the art education in geoscience available to Australian students, the participation rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island students has been miserably low. To remedy this low participation rate, the introduction of an Associate diploma in Science and Technology by the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University is a move in the right direction. The support from the mining industry for this course has been very encouraging.

The recent Australian High Court decision on the Mabo case and the subsequent native title legislation will certainly impact on mineral exploration and mining in Australia. The geoscience education of the wider Aboriginal community would enhance the processes of reconciliation and avoid conflict and confrontation in the better interests of all concerned. According to Gordon (1994), on the third of June 1992 the High Court effectively rewrote Australian law on the impact of colonisation. The late Eddie Mabo and other had fought for ten years to have their native ownership of Murray Island in the Torres Strait recognised, and overturn the legal actions of terra nullius.

Following the Mabo decision, the Australian Government legislated the Native Title Act, effective from January 1, 1994. This legislation has three components. Firstly, it recognises native title rights and contains processes for determining who actually holds those rights. Secondly, it allows validation of past acts and future intentions of the governments. Thirdly, it establishes an indigenous land fund to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to acquire and manage land where the claim to native title has been extinguished. Like the rest of the Australian community, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders also want a prosperous future for themselves and their children, and education and training is an essential element for this prosperity. The employment of Aboriginals in mineral and the mining industry is on the increase, and many mining companies now employ Aboriginal Liaison Officers for whom geoscience education is of tremendous benefit in setting up cooperative developments and commercial activities.

The Associate Diploma

The two year Associate Diploma in Science and Technology was first introduced in 1994 by the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The diploma has been developed in consultation with the faculty of science and industry within Western Australia. The course is unique in that it contains facets of both Aboriginal and Western Scientific knowledge which complement one another. After completion of the course the students can proceed into science degree courses at Curtin University, seek employment in industry related to science and technology or proceed into research into Aboriginal aspects. According to the Centre for Aboriginal Studies Report 1993, the aims and objectives of the Associate Diploma in Science and Technology are: The full-time two year course of four semesters has a weighting of at least 400 Credits, which represents about five units per semester. The first year of the course can be considered as a pre-university year, and consists of units like Communication Science and Technology, Environmental Biology, Measurement Science, Statistics, Aboriginal Studies, Environmental Chemistry, Energy and Technology, Mathematical Functions, Geological Changes and the Geological Systems. My experience and strategies adopted in teaching and assessment of the unit Geological Systems is discussed in this paper, and comments are also included for future developments in geoscience education.

The second year of the course includes units like Working Across Cultures, Environmental Chemistry, Calculus, Science Technology Projects, Field Experience and Electives in the areas of Geology, Physics, Biology, Computing, etc.

The geology units

The first year units in the course are Geological Changes 101 and the Geological Systems 102. The Geological Changes 101 has 3 hours/week student contact, and it includes introductions to basic concepts of geology, structure and nature of the crust, plate tectonics and crustal evolutions. Minerals and rocks, elementary igneous and metamorphic geology. The laboratory and tutorials are supplemented by two one day trips to areas in the metropolitan region where igneous and metamorphic geology is exposed.

The geological systems 102 has also student contact of 3 hours per week, and the syllabus includes external geological processes and land terms, geomorphology, sedimentology, introduction to palaeontology and stratigraphy. The lectures and tutorials encourage participation of students in discussions because a number of them have worked as prospectors in Western Australia. The lectures were supported by field excursions in the metropolitan area. The laboratory work was undertaken on geological samples collected during the excursions. Informal discussions during lectures and laboratories encouraged communications amongst students of different age groups and the staff. Extra tutorial assistance where required was provided. The procedure followed for assessment of the unit consisted of laboratory work, test and the field report. The students were encouraged to discuss their assessment and reports following the completion of the assigned tasks. The students were encouraged to work at their own pace and extra tutorials were provided as deemed necessary on an individual basis. Students were provided with copies of the material used during the lectures and tutorials, and they were encouraged to refer to publications and reports available in the library.

Student performance

From my several years of university experience, teaching to a diversity of students from different cultural backgrounds, I found the performance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait students in the unit to be on a par with other students. The pass rate in the unit was 81%, from a group of 16 students, 6 of them obtained over 70% marks. Four students from this course are expected to continue their studies in mining, mineral science and geology at university level.

Future developments

It is anticipated that a number of students after completion of the Associate Diploma in Science and Technology would proceed to study mining, geology, geophysics, mineral processing and mineral economics at Curtin University, as the employment prospects in mineral industry appear to be very good. Other geoscience programs which could be developed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island students are: Each of the two work-experience semesters in the program are of six months duration. The students are placed in industry employment, and they are solely responsible to their employers. The university monitors the progress of students on an informal basis and in certain cases requirements of formal report could be waived due to confidential nature of the exploration activity. The work experience semesters are given due credit along with academic semesters of study for the program. The benefits of a three way partnership between the student, employer and university are:
  1. The income generated from work experience is available to students to finance their studies.

  2. The students become more aware of the mineral industry environment in which they are likely to be employed after completion of the program.

  3. The students are exposed to problems of mutual importance which can be followed in joint research projects at postgraduate level.

  4. The industry is able to employ graduates based on their performance during the work experience component of the program.

  5. The staff derives satisfaction in training students who are well motivated and who can relate theory to practice in mineral industry.


The need for geoscience education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island students is vital for the well being of Australia and development of co-operative ventures between Aboriginals and mineral exploration. The hands on experience in geoscience is of utmost importance in training graduates, hence extra resources in terms of staff and facilities for fieldwork are essential for success of any program in geoscience.


American Geological Institute (1980). The Glossary of Geology.

Gordon, S. (1994). Native Title, Mining and Exploration in Northern Australia - Addressing the Problems and Benefits. Bull. Australas. Insti. Min & Met. N.6, pp. 76-79.

Sappal, K. K. (1983). Cooperative Education in Geosciences. Proc. Geoscience Curricula Development in South East Asia. AGID, Thailand. pp 51-56.

Please cite as: Sappal, K. K. (1995). Geoscience education for Aboriginal students at Curtin University of Technology, Perth. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p229-233. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/sappal.html

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